America thrives on mudslinging campaigns, the dirtier the politics the better. For all the criticism of attack ads and candidates refusing to give more than lip service to the issues, when the office water cooler talk comes between the latest figures on the deficit and a new political scandal, we go for the scandal. Just ask anyone from Illinois. We wore out every nuance of the Blagojevich case, from perp walk to the slammer, while our state sank deeper and deeper into a fiscal quagmire that should have commanded every moment of our attention. Blagojevich is locked away and forgotten. Illinois is still broke, and it is going to cost us big.
Republicans attacked Republicans with mudslinging election ads
During a Republican primary season we feared would never end, GOP candidates indulged their own style of dirty politics, shelving the Reagan maxim and going for each other’s throats (see: Bad Habits Republican Candidates Need to Break Now). The invective flew in attack ads pitting Republican against Republican while the president meandered down his own solitary campaign trail, spreading the message that wealth and corporations are destroying us. That message never went away, and it is still biting the GOP as you read this.
Dirty politics in 2008 are haunting us in 2012
Those outraged and angered by the Bain Capital election ads should think back to 2008 and the furor over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Acorn, his religious affiliations, his alleged socialist proclivities, and anything else we could dig up. Republicans didn’t call it mudslinging because we knew we were right.
The Obama campaign has had four years to craft their response. If we think Bain Capital is as bad as it is going to get, wait until after the GOP convention.
Super PACs are a matter of perception
No matter how firmly conservatives believe they are right, Democrats believe they are just as right with a conviction they are better at conveying to voters than Republicans. Thinking you are right and being right are two very different things. If candidates can convince the public, truth ultimately matters very little at election time.
The president certainly sounds like he is convinced that he is right about super PACs and that the unions, immigrants’ rights groups, and other special interests steering his campaign do not have the same force and effect as the dollars spent by corporations. We would like to see poll numbers showing that he is correct and that corporate super PACs have put him at a disadvantage, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Disclose Act bites the dust again
Congressional Democrats can stop crying about super PACs. They helped the White House wage an all-out propaganda war against corporate America and the business sector that went wrong when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United (see: Our President Fails to Disclose). The Disclose Act was the Democratic response to corporate spending on election ads and it just bit the dust again in the Senate, the one place where it would not be greeted with laughter. The president was displeased, warning:
I will continue to do everything I can to repair the deficit of trust between Washington and the American people. I’m disappointed Republicans in Congress failed to take action and hold corporations and special interests accountable to the American people.¹
How many Americans are interested enough to care about corporate and special interest influence, or have even heard of the Disclose Act? For a country that prides itself on defending democracy, our presidential election turnout is shameful. Participation in congressional elections is worse, a bad thing considering that the House and Senate are in a position to do tremendous damage. Are we content to sit at home and enjoy the dirty politics, forwarding hoax emails our friends pass along, telling ourselves that no matter what we do it simply does not matter?
Is it still dirty politics if you are right?
Democracy demands intelligence. Most of us are able to recognize an attack ad when we hear it and are as familiar with mudslinging as we are secure in our knowledge that campaign promises will vanish on election night. The problem is not that we don’t approve of attack ads, because we do. We just don’t like it when they come from the other side.